Christmas Blizzard '09: Unsung Heroes

"A lot of the people that live around here grew up here or have ties to here," said Bellevue Eagle Mart Manager Michelle Hobbs.

Bellevue Fire Chief Mark Branson describes the town as "Close knit... everybody knows everybody and its a good town to live in."

Texoma is dotted with small towns, but most aren't centered along the major artery between Dallas Fort Worth and the Texas panhandle.  Just under 400 people live here.  Most recognizable for the sky blue water tower visible from miles away on a clear day along highway 287.

But last year on Christmas eve, you couldn't see that water tower.  Bellevue, like much of Texoma, could hardly be seen at all.

"The gas sign out there the prices of gas, you couldn't even see the sign. Snow and ice, it happens, but nothing like this," said Hobbs.

Michelle Hobbs manages the Eagle Mart, the only convenient store in Bellevue.  Around 4PM, the snow became heavy enough you couldn't see more than five feet.  The snow would not stop for more than four hours, crippling the already treacherous roads.

Most people across Texoma chose to hunker down, ride the storm out and wait until the roads were cleared.  But Bellevue residents, including Hobbs, didn't have a choice.

Conditions on highway 287 deteriorated quickly and soon the Eagle Mart became the lone shelter for trapped holiday travelers.  Hobbs and her staff had to take matters into their own hands.

"There was no way to close, " said Hobbs. "It was like the Walmart parking lot, you just looked up and cars were everywhere and people were just trying to get inside."

The Eagle Mart staff worked into the night helping the stranded, but when the sun came up on Christmas day, they still couldn't go home. 287 was still shut down and everyone who was stuck needed food and shelter for another day.

Hobbs recalls the emotions of the stranded travelers: "They were nervous, they were scared, they were out of gas. And we were just here for them. Coffee and hot chocolates were real good sellers."

The Eagle Mart did all it could, but there were just too many travelers stranded.

"When we got on top of the hill and you could see nothing but headlights for 7 or 8 miles and none of them moving, Fire Chief Mark Branson said.  "That was when we were in trouble, especially because we knew we weren't getting any help.>

Chief Branson knew he needed to take action early on Christmas eve after witnessing the miles and miles of trapped travelers. The population of Bellevue was rising dramatically and a shelter was needed.

"They started piling up over at the Eagle Mart and once they got full, that's kinda the point where we gotta this thing opened up this is going to be a long term process. Some of them got to this point and been on the highway 7 or 8 hours, were just exhausted and said they were just staying."

The fire station doubles as the community center and in this case, a shelter for the stranded.  Hundreds of people packed themselves into the cafeteria-like room, some using folded up tables as beds. Meanwhile, the wind blown snow was still piling up and some emergency vehicles couldn't even be used.

Branson said "the snow by then was so deep to the point that we really couldn't get the fire trucks out. Some of the drifts were about waist deep."

The fire department used their personal four wheel drive vehicles and four by fours to get around town and help pull people off the highway. Many vacationers unknowingly had driven into the blizzard with smaller cars, and some Bellevue residents found themselves in a similar situation

Richard Johnson had his holiday plans wiped out by mother natures fury.

"I've been married thirty years, my wife works for the postal service, its the first time in 30 years we were separated Christmas," said Johnson. "Because she couldn't get in and I couldn't get her."

Johnson owns the Motor Exchange in Bellevue.  He tried to get to his wife, and even though she was just over 35 miles away in Wichita Falls, but the conditions were just too brutal.

"Tractors were stuck. Maintainers were stuck. 4 wheel drives were stuck. I got out of town probably two or three miles," Johnson recalls.

Johnson took his Suzuki Samurai that he always bragged to his wife "could go anywhere" but he only made it a few miles before deciding to head home.  Thousands of drivers were stuck on either side of 287, so he decided to go home, but it didn't turn out the way he planned

"I live kind of in the country and I didn't even get home," said Johnson. "I was stuck before I got to the house, so I had to just walk home and stay there. That's all you could do."

Despite the horrendous blizzard conditions, no serious injuries were reported and nobody lost their life. Those most important numbers are undoubtedly due to the tremendous work of these Texoma heroes. Nearly one year later, Bellevue is once again ready to take on another Texoma winter.

"We got a better idea, if something like that starts to happen again of what we can do," said Chief Branson

"We are ready whenever, if it happens again, we'll be ready again," said Hobbs.


Jeff Duke of the Sunset fire department:

"We spent the day & night either pulling people out, or giving rides to a shelter, we would try and beat the wreckers to a stranded motorist, the wrecker would charge people, we would not, it was Christmas."

Melissa Horn Kern:

"I live between Indiahoma & Cache, Oklahoma and I had to bring my first newborn baby straight home from the hospital with no electricity for 2 weeks! So she spent her first days right next to the fireplace. Heating bottles was a nightmare!

Callie Hill Byler:

"We live in Bowie and headed out to Amarillo right as it started snowing. We were at the big bridge coming into Wichita Falls when we got stopped on 287.  We spent over 6 hours in the car with 3 kids, no food or water! To make a long story short, we finally made it to a hotel in Wichita for the night. We spent Christmas Eve in a hotel and had gas station hot dogs for dinner but at least we were together!"

Loretta Mullin:

"That day was crazy, I have a cat that is part farel he got caught out in the storm finely about 9 o'clock that night I heard him meowing outside. He was out by the back of the house sitting on top of a bicycle, my husband went out and got him and he stayed in the house for 5 days and learned use the cat box he was afraid of that white stuff outside. Now if he sees anything white on the ground he comes in and stays until it is gone!!  Crazy cat!!"

Connie Pennington-Pierce:

"My daughter and her husband are stationed at Sheppard AFB and I live in Lawton. So excited to be home for Christmas, they started out on Christmas eve headed to my house. It took them two hours to get almost to the Lee Blvd exit then they... were stranded due to a pile up ahead of them....finally the Highway Patrol turned all the cars around and directed them to the 11th St. exit. They were stranded there again due to cars getting stuck. Finally after a four hour trip from Wichita Falls to Lawton, they drove into our driveway. We kept in touch with cell phones and they ended up eating some of the Christmas muffins that she had made for Christmas morning, but all ended well. During all this, the Mother in me just wanted to go get them, but that was not possible, so instead, we prayed a lot and thanked God that something which could have been much worse ended as it did."

Brad Goforth:

"I moved back to the Wichita Falls area in October last year and started working at the State Hospital in Vernon. I was working 7am to 3pm when it started and got stuck at the parking lot, 2 people helped me get out and I made it almost on ...287 to Electra when someone stopped in from of me. I turned right and went into a ditch and before my family came to help me out a male and female drove by in a tractor and hooked me up to it and pulled me out. It took from 3pm to 7:30pm to make it home safely and I called in for the next day. Our electricity went out for several days the next morning. I will never forget it and hope it doesn't happen again this December!"